An 18th century Flemish ebony and tortoiseshell veneered cabinet – £22,000 at Wilson55.

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As indicated to labels verso, it was once owned by Sir Robert Brooke and was part of the furnishings of the family seat of Norton Priory in Runcorn, also Cheshire.

In 1920, the year before the Brooke family left the house (it was partially demolished in 1928), a massive auction was held at the 30-bedroom property over five days.

Many locals bought items, including the farming family that had now chosen to part with the 4ft 4in (1.32m) cabinet and its later English rococo base.

In need of restoration (many pieces of veneer were missing and the inner cupboard has previously been broken), it had an estimate of £5000-10,000 at the sale on July 8.

Triumph over adversity

Another highlight of this Fine & Classic auction was a portrait miniature by Sarah Biffin (1784-1850), an artist born with the congenital deformity phocomelia.


Portrait miniature by Sarah Biffin – £5800 at Wilson55.

She taught herself to write, paint and hold scissors using her mouth and spent her formative years touring the country as ‘the limbless wonder’ as part of Emmanuel Dukes’ travelling show.

It was at St Bartholomew’s Fair in 1808 that Biffin was introduced to Earl of Morton, an encounter that led to professional training, aristocratic patronage, recognition by the Royal Academy and a mention in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit and Little Dorrit.

Biffin’s story of talent and triumph over adversity is slowly becoming better known. The sale at Sotheby’s in December 2019 of a self-portrait for a multi-estimate £110,000 was a ‘sit up and take notice’ moment in the collecting market: hitherto the previous auction high for Biffin was the £1600 bid at Bonhams Knightsbridge in 2009 for A Lady, seated in a red upholstered chair.

Here an oval watercolour on ivory miniature of a Regency-era military officer, with inscribed label and printed biography verso, came for sale from a Cheshire estate with the guide of £300-500.

It attracted a huge amount of interest from collectors before the hammer fell at £5800.